Coming up with a list of most underrated noir films is daunting, but here are a few with the caveat that his list could be four times as long and would still contain films I stand behind 100%.
Glenn Ford was a Noir stalwart in films like The Big Heat (easily on my top five list) and Gilda which usually grabs up all the oxygen in his canon and is a film I don’t like at all but most people adore so it must be some weird thing with me. But then there is Framed. People new to the genre are always obsessed with defining what Noir is and I think Framed is a solid example of several temples of Noir: the ordinary Joe as sap, the vicious femme fatale, the small time stakes.
Janis Carter was never a big name but she excelled at playing women with pitch black hearts who chew innocent men up and spit them out. Ford is a working stiff who falls for the dame, gets suckered into her scheme and has his life upended all by a simple twist of fate that his brakes failed and truck broke down in the wrong small town.
Where Gilda is all tuxedos and murky motivations, Framed is pulp-style storytelling in a dusty nowhere town. The good and evil is on stark display and the more innocent you are, the worse things are going to go for you.
Adapted from a novel by William P. McGivern, who got the best treatment of all novelists in the noir era in my opinion, this movie exemplifies the post WW2 malaise that scholars like to write about Film Noir. My favorite thing about this film (and the book that inspired it) are the deliciously small stakes. All detective Nolan (O’Brien) wants is a tract house in the suburbs with a sunken living room so he can marry his gal and get his slice of the 1950s American dream. That dream was made so appealing in the post-war years that it resulted in a country-wide obsession with the nuclear family and Norman Rockwell vision of the new peacetime future. Of course, when that doesn’t work out for some people they can’t let it go and it turns sour inside them.
So Nolan betrays his badge (did anybody do dirty cop stories better than McGivern? No) and gets himself up to his knees in quicksand in his pursuit of this small town promise of a better life the U.S. sold to him.
O’Brien is a seething, snarling beast in this film he co-directed and it’s his over-the-top grasp for this small brass ring that makes it so compelling. He steals, murders and seeks to cover his tracks with more violence all for shag carpet and an electric stove in the kitchen.
This one is really obscure and not available anywhere traditionally as of now. I have a really bad print taped off some late late show and dubbed five or six times on VHS so if I like it in that bastardized format, I’d love to see this one get restored.
An early work from director John Sturges (The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven) this is pure noir of the “everyman makes a bad decision that leads to more bad decisions" variety.
Chance, fate and happenstance all factor into some of the best Noir stories and in this one Lloyd Corrigan, who was is not your typical Hollywood leading man but excels in playing a weak-willed sucker, gets entangled in a murder and counterfeiting ring all because of an errant golf ball swing. Once again, a story that could have ended before reel one was finished spooling out if the main character had only gone to the police, but in not doing so we see his life unravel over the next 70 minutes as the darkness encroaches and the shadows loom.
It’s not great on a Double Indemnity or Out Of The Past level, not by a long shot, but it’s pure B-movie noir that deserves a second look, or for even the most hard-boiled of Noir fans, even a first look.
One of my absolute favorite Noir films owes a lot to its companion piece, the much better known, Laura (1944). With the same director and same two leads (Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews) the two films are nevertheless very different and will set the tone for the type of Noir you gravitate towards.
Where Laura is up in the penthouse, Where The Sidewalk Ends is down in the gutter. It literally starts there in the opening shot.
Much more hardboiled, much more about choices we make, Sidewalk is for the beer drinkers, not the martini crowd.
And in this film there is a moment that, for me, defines Noir. Detective Mark Dixon (Andrews) stands in a doorway, on the literal threshold of a decision to enter the room and perpetrate violence he’d been warned against and that he knows could torpedo his career, or walk away and do the right thing by keeping his fists in his pockets. The shot is low, almost from the dirty carpet level as Preminger frames Dixon to loom over us, heavy with his decision. This is the most Noir moment you can imagine. It all hinges on this: Make the wrong choice and it’s a swirling whirlpool of coverups and desperate actions. Make the right choice to walk away and it becomes a boy-meets-girl romcom.
What choice do you think he makes?
Charles McGraw is maybe the most Noir actor ever. His gruff delivery, his no-nonsense average guy looks. He appeared in several noirs including The Killers and Narrow Margin (another top 5 for me) but somehow Roadblock gets overlooked along the way.
For pure noir that ticks all the boxes – crooked detective (of the insurance kind this time), femme fatale, bleak ending – Roadblock has it all.
It’s simple, efficient and brutal. It may not have the lush visuals of many more highly regarded noirs, but it’ll scratch the itch for down-n-dirty wrong-side-of-the-law nastiness that real Noirheads crave.
Like I said, this list could have gone on for 50 films but I’m out of space. Here are a few honorable mentions definitely worth your time:
Eric Beetner is the author of a billion books. You should check some of them the fuck out. For my money Dig Two Graves is a terrific place to start. He fucking knows noir shit and shits hardboiled prose faster than fuck. For the moment his latest book is the double dose of noir novellas Dark Duet. He's also the co-host of the crime fiction podcast Writer Types. Follow him on Twitter @EricBeetner.